Rebecca Otowa (May 2011) updated March 2012
The little room hummed in semidarkness. Two plastic chairs faced a bluish-white glowing screen. One was empty, the other occupied. Suzuki slouched uncomfortably and gazed at the screen, whose color reminded him of a fish belly. What kind of fish? Suzuki’s head ached. He wished the doctor would come – he wanted to go home.
With a startling little rush of efficiency, the doctor – impossibly young, like a time-machine trick – breezed into the room. He perched sideways on the second chair, his whole posture that of a man who doesn’t intend to stay long. Also, he was empty-handed – wasn’t he supposed to be bringing X-ray pictures to discuss? These doctors! Always changing their tune. Suzuki sighed. He wondered if he would be told to wait longer, or even to come back another day. He was used to older doctors, brisk loud-voiced men whose hectoring manner somehow held a measure of comfort. What could such a young man possibly know?
“Suzuki-san,” the doctor began, not meeting Suzuki’s eyes but instead pulling a stray corner of his white coat free of his thigh and rubbing his knees with his hands. “I didn’t bring the X-rays, because I think your wife should be present when we look at them. So, please go home and find out when your wife can come with you to see me, all right? Then call and make an appointment.” The young doctor stood up. He was finished with Suzuki, probably already thinking about his next patient. He left the room quickly, his haste indistinguishable from relief.
“I think your wife should be present.” Suzuki knew only too well what this meant. The doctor was as transparent as a fish bowl: young people like him could never hide what they were thinking. Besides, it was common knowledge that doctors always called in the next of kin when the situation was hopeless. No use sugar-coating it – he was done for.
The young doctor was already out of sight when Suzuki emerged from the room. He carried his headache down the hall, out the door and into the wan spring sunlight of the hospital parking lot. The light seemed to pulse with the beat of his heart, glancing off the chrome and angles of the lined-up cars. He found his car, heaved himself into the driver’s seat, and let his heavy head drop down till it rested on the steering wheel. He stayed in that position for some minutes, observing through half-closed eyes the truncated view of his lap framed by grey plastic curves, and the patches of sunlight as they brightened and faded with the passing clouds. Finally, with a sigh that seemed drawn up through the soles of his feet, he inserted the key into the slot and started the engine.
On the short drive home, his mind was like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the different-colored cars on the road, all moving independently and free of purpose. New green leaves shifted in the breeze, buildings swam up and passed by. The actions of his driving were entirely instinctive, never penetrating the mirror’s surface. When he came to himself again, the car was stopped in his own driveway. Just beyond the front bumper was the rusty Roll-a-Door that now permanently covered the front of the grocery shop he had run for twenty-five years. He fancied he could still smell the sharp aroma of decaying fish parts.
Slowly Suzuki got out, walked around the car, and climbed the outside steps to the flat above the shop. The flight was endless. Each rusty metal step was negotiated separately. He breathed deeply and momentarily closed his eyes before opening the door at the top, which gave directly on the kitchen and the back view of his wife standing at the sink. She turned quickly and her eyes searched his face.
“I’m back,” Suzuki said. He shuffled off his shoes and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. His feet in their socks remained motionless against the worn linoleum.
She wiped her hands on her apron and sat down opposite him. “What did they say?”
“They said I’m fine. I just need to rest a little more.”
“Well, good, that’s good. We can manage.” She smiled at him encouragingly. Suzuki felt the mirror-self return. His wife of three decades became a blur of colors and shapes. He could not fathom her. He got up without another word and moved into the other room, where he carefully lowered himself down onto the tatami. He lay on his back, placing his head on the straw matting as gently as an egg. In a few minutes he was asleep.
Suzuki awoke in the small hours to find himself covered by a futon. His wife slept quietly next to him. The only sounds he heard were her regular breathing and the measured tick of the clock in the kitchen. His headache had receded, and in place of the numb, dumb mirror-self of the daylight hours, his mind held a clarity so intense it was almost painful. The gloomy ceiling above him, with its old-fashioned hanging light, invited him to confess this new, secret crisis. Silently he poured out his heart. The shame of having to give up the grocery – he just didn’t feel well enough to go on with it – and the greater shame of being financially dependent on his wife, which was against all his principles. And now the panicky, suffocating weight of the new situation. Her job at the supermarket was barely sufficient to keep them both from one month to the next. There was no money at all for big hospital bills, which would be useless in the end anyway.
“What should I do?” he asked the ceiling, expecting no reply.
The darkness of the night was suddenly split by a terrible, blinding thought. He gasped in shock, but then the idea came closer, vibrating with sinister attraction, and made itself his friend. This solved everything. The cost took his breath away; still, it was payable. After years of owning his own business, Suzuki was an expert in small-scale cost analysis. He communed with the ceiling all night, making his plans.
After breakfast next morning, he pottered around aimlessly, still in the clothes of the previous day, waiting for his wife to go to the bus stop. In parting she urged him to take care of himself, and he answered her briefly but kindly. He watched her retreating figure obliquely from the upstairs window until she was out of sight.
He maneuvered his way downstairs and opened the storeroom at the rear of the defunct shop. Inside, it was dim and silent as an underwater cave. Half-remembered objects loomed lopsidedly at him – angles of deep freezes, stacks of discolored plastic boxes, water tanks, all wearing the same film of dust. For a moment his imagination populated the forsaken space with the bustle and cheer, the chatter of the neighbors, the plump silver fish and multicolored vegetables lined up on the slanting wood shelves.
Suzuki shook himself. Whatever feelings might arise today no longer mattered. From a hook on the wall he took a coil of plastic rope, slung it over his shoulder, and grabbed up a box cutter from a shelf. He made his way through the monstrous dusty piles of junk again, emerged into the sunshine, and put the rope in the trunk of his car. Back in the tatami room upstairs, he opened the cheap freestanding closet and removed his best black suit and a shirt and tie. He folded them haphazardly into a pile. These also went into the car’s trunk. Suzuki visited the flat once more, collecting his bankbook, ivory seal, and deed of ownership of the building, and putting them into a big envelope along with a few other papers. This he propped against the family altar. He was about to leave when a thought struck him. He turned back, snagged his Buddhist rosary, a circle of black stone beads, and slid it into his pocket. His actions were calm and studied. One after another, they carried him along with a precision that made him feel safe. For the first time in many days, everything was under control.
Suzuki got in his car and drove away down the street. He saw no one. The village was usually deserted on weekday mornings, and he had counted on this. He turned south toward the golf course and the mountains beyond. It was another sunny day. The mirror-self reflected gorgeous swathes of spring green, lovely little clusters of yellow dandelions by the side of the road, pools of water in the paddy fields showing the blue sky and white clouds in their depths.
He turned the car into the golf course parking lot, and backed into a space in the far corner. The lot was utterly deserted, the golf course having closed the previous year. Suzuki placed a shade over the windshield and sat in the dim interior of the car. The windows were open and the delicious spring breeze wafted in and out. Now that he was here, he found he couldn’t bear to carry out his plan in daylight. He would have to wait until nightfall. He sat motionless as the sun slowly passed across the sky. Finally evening shadows began to gather around him. As the last bars of sunlight disappeared from the parking lot, Suzuki slowly stirred, removed the window shade, and tossed it into the back seat. He started the engine and drove out of the parking lot.
A little further up the mountain road, a small sign reading “Rhododendron Valley” indicated a road off to the left. Suzuki drove quietly along under the trees, negotiating the curves, gliding through the deepening twilight like a fish through dark water. Reaching a wide spot in the road, he pulled in, parked, and got out. The breeze had vanished with the sun, and everything was utterly still. The air was cool and the little mauve-colored clouds overhead seemed very far away. Suzuki opened the trunk, and slowly changed into his best clothes, transferring the rosary to his suit coat pocket. As he knotted his tie, his face craned upward, and he felt the unbearable sweetness and glory of his flesh. His eyes swam with tears.
Suzuki struggled to regain the blessedly unfeeling mirror-self that had brought him this far. Finally he succeeded. Taking up the coil of rope, he turned in the dusk and began trudging up a footpath that bordered a small stream. Rain had been keeping off in recent weeks, and the stream was just a chain of shallow pools, motionless, faintly glowing. The rhododendrons on the other side of the stream were a bank of shadow, their blooms still a few weeks away. Suzuki climbed steadily. It took him about ten minutes to reach the end of the little path, which petered out for no particular reason next to a bench and a signpost.
His good shoes slipping on the carpet of leaves, Suzuki angled upward, away from the path, and hauled himself up the slope by gripping the trunks of small trees. He cast around for a few minutes, and soon found what he was looking for. Calmly he measured the rope, cut it with the box cutter, and tied one end to a large stone at the base of a suitably forked tree. The other end he tied around his neck, above the collar, and settled the knot snugly under his ear. Then he bent down and rigged a small platform of rocks and fallen branches to stand on. Huffing a little, he climbed onto these, hefting the rope-tied stone in his arms. Then he carefully wedged the stone into the fork of the tree, working by touch since it was now almost full dark.
Suzuki stood unmoving on the pile of stones, fingering the beads in his pocket. He looked up, and the silky air and far high stars made him feel transparent. He had done his work, his preparations were complete. All the hours, minutes, and seconds of his life came down to this. There remained only the deed itself. He took one deep breath, then with a heave, he pushed the big stone through the fork of the tree, at the same time kicking aside the makeshift platform under his feet. Light exploded behind his eyes as the rope tightened. Last of all he felt the tree bark graze his cheek. His feet in their good shoes jangled crazily for a moment, then were still. The trees all around looked down on him, and silence returned to the woods as he joined the night.
(This is a true story. A man in our village hanged himself in a nature park nearby. It was discovered that he had been diagnosed with a fatal disease and had chosen to commit suicide rather than bankrupt his family with doctor bills.)
RHODODENDRON VALLEY (2012) copyright by Rebecca Otowa
Rebecca Otowa is a three-decades resident of Japan. She came from Australia to study in 1978 and never went back home. She currently lives in a small village (100 houses) in her husband's 350-year-old family farmhouse, where she writes, paints, gardens, teaches English, works on herself, and enjoys good relationships with a variety of Japanese people. She has two grown married sons.
Her publications include At Home in Japan (Tuttle, 2010), an essay collection, and My Awesome Japan Adventure (Tuttle, 2013), a children's introduction to Japanese culture. She is currently working on a short story collection.